Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 29 December, 2020 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

Probabilism is the sceptical view that no definite knowledge can be obtained and, therefore, opinions and actions should be guided by probability.

explanatory context

Probabilism is a modification of inductivism that asserts knowledge is the result of probabalistic inference. (It was proposed by a group of Cambridge philosophers.)

Probabilism accepts the anti-inductivist position that theories are unprovable on the basis of empirical data (i.e. that inductive 'proof' cannot be generalised).

However, probabilism accepted that some theories are more probable than others in the light of the available evidence. Scientific honesty is then reduced to declaring only highly probable theories and the justificationist dictum of scientific honesty appertaining to proven propositions is therefore discarded.

However, this watered down version of inductivism does not overcome the problem of inductive inference as there is no way that any finite number of observations makes a theoretical proposition more probable given the infinite implication of such a generalisation. The probability of such a proposition being true is still zero however many observations appear to support it. The proposition may, of course be intuitively more true, but logically this is irrelevant and certainly does not provide an objective support to the inductivist principle.

An alternative probabilistic manouevre is to frame science as about particulars rather than universals. To make it a predictor of unique events. For example, to predcict the probability of the sun rising tomorrow rather than always. The probability is thus a function of available data and calculable. But, all that it amounts to is a particular production. It does not constitute scientific knowledge as such, for scientific knowledge is entwined with universalistic comprehension, to which particular predictions offer nothing.

Furthermore, any prediction is credible in relation to a theory that suggests what evidence the probability should relate to. A prediction devoid of theory is useless in the development of knowledge. For example, it might be possible to predict the winner of a horse race simply by computing the probability of each horse winning on the basis of their wins in other races. If, however, the prediction is based on a more sophisticated theory, which takes into account not only the form of the horses but the opposition the horses faced in other races, the breeding of the horses, the length of the race, the jockey, the training, the weight allowance, the course and condition of the ground, and so on, then the prediction will be more credible because all relevent factors will have been accounted for. The relevence of these factors is, of course, theoretically determined.


Without labouring the point further, the attempt to save inductivism through the weakening of its principles embodied in probabilism fails as all theories are not equally unprovable but are just equally improbable.

analytical review

HIll (2009) writes in the Abstract to an article:

In ethics, 'probabilism' refers to a position defended by a number of Catholic theologians, mainly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They held that, when one is uncertain which of a range of actions is the right one to perform, it is permissible to perform any which has a good chance of being the right one—even if there is another which has a better chance.  


Encyclopædia Britannica (1998) states:

Probabilism, in casuistry, a principle of action grounded on the premise that, when one does not know whether an action would be sinful or permissible, he may rely on a "probable opinion" for its permissibility even though a more  probable opinion calls it sinful. An opinion is considered probable either if sound, logical arguments can be cited in its favour (intrinsic probability) or if recognized authorities give it support (extrinsic probability).

Formulated in 1577 by Bartolomé de Medina, a Dominican Christian friar of Salamanca, Spain, probabilism was developed by the  Jesuits. The Jansenists, who held that in doubtful cases of conscience one should follow the safer view—i.e., against permissibility (tutiorism, rigorism)—attacked the benignity of the Jesuit confessors as leading to laxity of morals. Excesses of probabilism were condemned by Pope Alexander VII (1666, 1667) and more forcefully by Pope Innocent XI (1679)....


The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (undated):

Probabilism. A moral theory conceding to the individual the right to act in accordance with a probable opinion about the rectitude of that act, even though there may be a more probable opinion, apparently supported by law, against the action. The theory which insists that the more probable opinion must be followed is probabiliorism. 

associated issues


related areas

See also



Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, nd, 'Probabilism',  available at, accessed 12 June 2019

Encyclopædia Britannica, 1998, 'Probabilism', available at, axccessed 12 June 2019/

Hill, J., 2009, 'Probabilism today: permissibility and multi-account ethics', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 87(2), pp. 235–50.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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